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Teenagers and smartphones: ‘Like animals in a zoo, they are missing out on life’s rich experiences’

Teenagers who are heavy users of social media (five-plus hours a day) are twice as likely to be depressed as non-users

You know the symptoms: sudden mood changes in teenagers when online or just after coming offline; secondary school students who are zoned out in class because they are exhausted from being online late into the night; young people who have a temper tantrum if their phone is taken from them, lost or broken because they are afraid they’ve missed a like, comment or share or, ironically, they’ve not had the chance to view posts about something they have actually missed.

With Irish children and teenagers known to have some of the highest rates of smartphone use in the world, smartphone “addiction” is arguably so prevalent in young people that it almost goes unnoticed.

Psychotherapist Stella O’Malley says that overuse of smartphones in young people is a huge problem. “It’s leading to alienation, loneliness and despair. Everybody knows that it is bad for us. It’s not taken seriously enough, although there is a growing acknowledgment that it’s a problem.”

Some psychologists and psychotherapists don’t like to use the term addiction, which is associated more with alcohol, drug or gambling – even if some people experience physiological withdrawal symptoms when they don’t have access to their phones. Instead, they prefer to describe it as dysfunctional use of smartphones.


Referring to studies by American psychologist Dr Jean Twenge, O’Malley says many teenagers are “like animals in a zoo. They are missing out on life’s rich experiences by spending too much time in the virtual world.”

Dr Twenge contends that many young people are more comfortable texting their friends than actually spending time with them at parties or out and about. “They may be physically safer, but they are psychologically more vulnerable... We are on the brink of the worst mental health crisis in decades,” she wrote in an article in 2017.

Drilling down into her research, Twenge said teenagers who are heavy users of social media (five-plus hours a day) are twice as likely to be depressed as non-users. “Rates of depression among teens doubled between 2011 and 2019 right as social media and smartphones became popular,” Twenge said in an interview at San Diego State University, where she is professor of psychology.

They know that they are having pseudo deep conversations online and they often feel like they have confided too much and feel unease afterwards

—  Stella O’Malley, psychotherapist

In the UK, researchers have found that teenagers who spend five hours or more a day on social media are two to three times at greater risk of self-harm than peers who spend less time online. Sleep experts say teenagers need about nine hours of sleep a night, yet studies have found that teens who spend three to four hours a day on an electronic device are 20 per cent more likely to get less than seven hours sleep a night. Children who use a media device right before bed are also more likely to sleep less than they should, more likely to sleep poorly and more likely to be sleepy during the day.

O’Malley says some of the young people she sees in therapy sessions know they have a problem with excessive smartphone use. “They know that they are having pseudo deep conversations online and they often feel like they have confided too much and feel unease afterwards that they have exposed themselves and haven’t received a human response,” she says.

O’Malley gives these young people “social prescriptions” to go out and meet their friends in person. “They need to meet their mates – many of whom are equally dependent on their phones. They need support from their families to do social activities that keeps them off their phones.”

Psychotherapist and lecturer in mental health at the South East Technological University, Colman Noctor, says while there has been a lot of attention placed on internet safety, there has not been enough focus on the emotional impact of smartphone use. “The more your smartphone means to you, the more problematic it is. Our relationship with technology is emotional, and its impact depends on an individual’s temperament and vulnerabilities,” he says.

“Technology affects how we think, feel and behave. Technology mediates our emotions. It’s where we keep our diary, our photos. It’s where we project ourselves for recognition and validation – judging how good/valuable we are according to the likes, reactions and shares we get on what we post.

“Media literacy navigates the mechanics of technology, but does it go far enough to navigate the emotional impact of technology?”

Noctor suggests we need a “deeper dive” to fully come to grips with the emotional dynamics of our technology use. “People can bypass social anxiety by engaging virtually, but they don’t develop social skills by doing so. We talk a lot about emotional expression now and getting things off our chest, but is there any benefit to doing this online if we aren’t processing the feelings or being challenged? We aren’t developing emotional and social skills in this online world.”

Philip Arneill, head of education and innovation at CyberSafeKids, says it comes back to the need to discuss what we are doing online. “We ask our children all the time about how school was, how the game was or how the movie was, but we don’t talk to them about what they are doing online.”

Having no-phone zones such as during meals at home or in a restaurant also makes for better relationships all around

He argues that we need to make it just as normal to talk to our teenagers about what they are doing online. “The virtual world is real life for a lot of young people, and we need to have the ability to have open discussions about what goes on online.”

He also suggests that parents who are still paying for their teenagers’ smartphone plans can supervise or limit time spent on devices. “It’s also about having practical rules around where phones are charged. Teenagers have issues around privacy, independence and freedom and of course they will want to use their smartphones in their bedrooms, but having a shared space downstairs for charging phones is a good idea.”

Having no-phone zones such as during meals at home or in a restaurant also makes for better relationships all around. Arneill also recommends the book, How To Break Up With Your Phone, by Catherine Price (Trapeze) for those who are ready to reduce the time they spend on their smartphones.

Twenge says parents should put off children getting social media accounts for as long as possible, and that children aged 12 and under should not be using social media at all. “When they do get an account, limit the amount of time they can spend on it to an hour or less a day. This limit can be relaxed somewhat for older teens but only if they are handling the pressures of social media well – and it may be difficult to tell.”

Read more from our screentime series here.